16 Surprising Facts About Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

CCAC North Library, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
CCAC North Library, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0 / CCAC North Library, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

For more than 60 years, Ray Bradbury's science fiction classic Fahrenheit 451 has sparked imagination, debate, and rebellion. The dystopian story of a man who burns books to prevent the dissemination of ideas—and then comes to realize the error of his choices—criticized censorship at the height of the Cold War. The novel remains full of surprises, contradictions, and misconceptions.

1. Adolf Hitler was Fahrenheit 451’s dark inspiration.

Fahrenheit 451 centers on Guy Montag, a fireman tormented by his job: Instead of putting out fires, he is expected to burn books. In an interview with the National Endowment for the Arts, Bradbury explained how he came up with this concept:

"Well, Hitler, of course. When I was 15, he burned the books in the streets of Berlin. Then along the way I learned about the libraries in Alexandria burning 5000 years ago. … That grieved my soul. Since I'm self-educated, that means my educators—the libraries—are in danger. And if it could happen in Alexandria, if it could happen in Berlin, maybe it could happen somewhere up ahead, and my heroes would be killed."

2. The title Fahrenheit 451 is misleading.

A popular tagline for the book is "the temperature at which book-paper catches fire, and burns." But 451°F actually refers the auto-ignition point of paper, meaning the temperature at which paper will burn if not exposed to an external flame, like that from Montag's flamethrower. Books can, however, ignite at temperatures between the 440s and 480s, depending on the density and type of paper.

3. Fahrenheit 451 was adapted from Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fireman.

In 1950, Bradbury released a collection of short stories called The Martian Chronicles. The following year, "The Fireman" was published in Galaxy magazine. From there, Bradbury would expand the tale to create Fahrenheit 451.

4. Ray Bradbury did not write Fahrenheit 451 in nine days.

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A popular apocryphal story is that Bradbury hammered out Fahrenheit 451 in just over a week. That story is wrong: It was the 25,000-word "The Fireman" that he wrote in that time period. The author would later refer to the short story as "the first version" of the eventual novel. But over the years, he would often speak about "The Fireman" and Fahrenheit 451 interchangeably, which has caused some confusion.

5. Ray Bradbury wrote “The Fireman” on a rented typewriter in a library basement.

Bradbury and wife Marguerite McClure had two young children, and he was in need of a quiet place to write but had no money for renting an office. In a 2005 interview, Bradbury said:

"I was wandering around the UCLA library and discovered there was a typing room where you could rent a typewriter for 10 cents a half-hour. So I went and got a bag of dimes. The novel began that day, and nine days later it was finished. But my God, what a place to write that book! I ran up and down stairs and grabbed books off the shelf to find any kind of quote and ran back down and put it in the novel. The book wrote itself in nine days, because the library told me to do it."

6. Ray Bradbury spent $9.80 on typewriter rental.

Bradbury's nine days in the library cost him, by his own estimate, just under $10. That means he spent about 49 hours writing "The Fireman."

7. Fahrenheit 451 is viewed as a criticism of McCarthyism.

Fahrenheit 451 was published on October 19, 1953 in the midst of the Second Red Scare, an era from the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s characterized by political and cultural paranoia. Many Americans feared Communist infiltration of their values and communities. Because of the context of its publication, some critics have interpreted Montag's story as a challenge to the censorship and conformity that U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt sparked.

8. Ray Bradbury was really writing about the dangers of television

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Bradbury feared TV would be the death of reading—and perhaps extinguish a crucial part of our collective humanity. "Television gives you the dates of Napoleon," Bradbury lamented, "but not who he was." He also said TV is "mostly trash."

9. Ray Bradbury’s bias toward reading didn’t keep him away from TV.

Not only did the prolific author of more than 600 works allow his short stories and novels to be adapted for TV, but he also wrote teleplays for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and his own anthology series The Ray Bradbury Theater, which ran for six seasons between 1985 and 1992. For his efforts, Bradbury won a string of honors, including the CableAce award for best dramatic series (The Ray Bradbury Theater), an Emmy for The Halloween Tree, and a lifetime achievement honor from the Bram Stoker Awards.

10. François Truffaut’s movie adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 made a big change to the story.

Clarisse, the teenage girl who befriends Montag, is unceremoniously killed in a hit-and-run accident in the novel. In the movie, she survives. Far from being put off by this alteration, Bradbury liked it. When he adapted the novel into a stage show, he took a cue from the movie and let Clarisse live.

11. Fahrenheit 451 has been adapted for other media.

Aside from Truffaut's film and Bradbury's play, the novel has also been reconceived as a BBC radio drama, a video game, a graphic novel, and a 2018 movie starring Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon.

12. Ray Bradbury considered Fahrenheit 451 his only work of science fiction.

Though he is regarded as a master of the science fiction genre, Bradbury viewed the rest of his work as fantasy. He once explained, "I don't write science fiction. I've only done one science fiction book and that's Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it's fantasy. It couldn't happen, you see?"

13. Fahrenheit 451 imagined earbuds.

When the novel came out, headphones were large and cumbersome things. But Bradbury imagined "the little Seashells, the thimble radios," which rested in the ear canal, and played “an electronic ocean of sound” to Montag's sleeping wife. Though early in-ear headphones had been patented decades before, these “seashells” went from science fiction to science fact in 2001, when Apple designer Jony Ive debuted earbuds.

Still, "predicting" wasn't something Bradbury was interested in. "I've tried not to predict, but to protect and to prevent," he said of Fahrenheit 451. "If I can convince people to stop doing what they're doing and go to the library and be sensible, without pontificating and without being self-conscious, that's fine. I can teach people to really know they're alive."

14. For years, Ray Bradbury refused to let Fahrenheit 451 be published as an e-book.

Richard Unten, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As the novel makes clear, Bradbury treasured the printed word. When asked in 2009 if he'd allow one of his books to be put online, the author responded to the would-be publishers, "To hell with you and to hell with the internet. It's distracting. It's meaningless; it's not real. It's in the air somewhere."

He also declared that e-books "smell like burned fuel." But in 2011, 91-year-old Bradbury gave in when Simon & Schuster offered him a reported seven-figure publishing deal, in which the rights to publish an e-book version were integral.

15. Ray Bradbury knew what he would do if he lived in Fahrenheit 451's dystopia.

In the book, there is an underground band of rebels who attempt to preserve the written word by memorizing great works of literature. Asked which book he'd commit to memory in such a circumstance, Bradbury answered, "It would be A Christmas Carol. I think that book has influenced my life more than almost any other book, because it's a book about life, it's a book about death. It's a book about triumph."

16. Fahrenheit 451 is Ray Bradbury’s most popular novel.

It's sold more than 10 million copies, earned critical acclaim, and is considered one of the major novels of the 20th century. Fahrenheit 451 has won several awards, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, a Prometheus "Hall of Fame" Award, and a Hugo Award. And Bradbury earned a Grammy nomination in the spoken word category for the 1976 audiobook, which he performed himself.

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A version of this story ran in 2018. It has been updated for 2021.